The Dutch East Indies as known as the Netherlands, colonized Indonesia in 1800. Although, Indonesians knew that Japan was conquering many countries they hoped that if the Japanese invaded it would lead to their independence from the Netherlands. On December 8, 1941 the Netherlands declared war on Japan. Several countries fought under the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command structure, but it was a losing battle. The Japanese were too powerful and well prepared; they were focused on the Dutch East Indies due to their vast natural resources. By mid February many places were under Japanese control including Borneo, Singapore, and Java. On March 8, 1942 the Dutch surrendered to the Japanese Empire and it decisively ended 300 years of Dutch rule.
The Japanese forced Indonesians and Dutch out of their homes and into makeshift internment camps. Many Dutch believed they would be spared because they helped the Japanese gain valuable resources and they would help run the cities. However that was not the case, everyone was taken to internment camps. Japanese and Indonesian people were installed in higher-ranking positions, while the Dutch were sent to the camps. The conditions of the internment camps were horrific. Originally, Indonesian people welcomed the Japanese with open arms, but soon learned they would not be kind in return. The internees were treated terribly mainly at the hands of the Japanese. Parents were separated from their children, young teenage girls were forced to dig graves for those who were killed either by starvation or by Japanese police, and everyday women and children were forced to face Japan and bow to a representative of Emperor Hirohito. The killing of internees and sympathizers were a common occurrence and could happen at any moment. Food and basic supplies were extremely scarce as the Japanese were still trying to fight on other fronts.
Helen Colijn was just a teenager when the Japanese invaded her homeland. Originally from Tarakan, Helen, her father, and two sisters fled to Tabuan when her father realized the Japanese would be invading the Dutch East Indies. But soon after they arrived in Tabuan, they were arrested by the Japanese and separated from each other. Helen and her sisters, Alette and Antoinette, were sent to a women and children camp while her father, Anton, was sent to a nearby men’s camp. Helen was imprisoned with other civilians including Dutch, British, and a group of Australian Army nurses.
After Helen became imprisoned, she volunteered for grave duty along with three other prisoners. She wanted to help and the one way she could was to make sure those who had been killed had a proper grave. The guards wouldn’t dig graves for people, so it was up to the prisoners. As she spent more time digging graves, her outlook on life and death substantially changed. Death was no longer a shock or a time to be sad because it occurred almost everyday and the few healthy women didn’t have energy to grieve. Many prisoners were not only dying due to lack of food and medication, rather they had lost the will to live.
There were countless rules imposed on people inside the camp and outside of the camp by the Japanese. One rule the Japanese had was roll call or tenko. The internees were ordered to bow from the waist to the local representative of Japan. Oftentimes they had to stand for hours in the sun if one didn’t meet the standards of the guards. Anything that didn't meet the guard’s satisfaction could lead to physical abuse. The punishment also extended to outsiders. There was an elderly Chinese man who got caught trying to sell eggs to starving women inside the camps. The guards dragged him into the camp, then tied rope around his hands and neck in a way that would strangle him over time. Everyone in the camp had to walk past him on their way to tenko; it took three days for him to die. There was one rule that worked in favor of the internees: they were allowed to conduct their own educational activities. This brought a piece of peace for the women because they were able to have a place to talk in a communal library and they could pass down traditions and teachings to their children.
Unfortunately, all of this changed early in 1943 when they were moved from individual structures to hastily constructed barracks camps. This created stress because now everything was shared and public. The restrooms were public and the showers were open for everyone to use in front of one another. Margaret Dryburgh, an English musically gifted missionary, wanted to do something to bring joy back in their lives. She wrote a song called “The Captives Hymn” with Norah Chambers. Together Dutch, English, and Australian singers rehearsed at night and put together a concert for everyone to enjoy.
Alette and Antoinette were both in the choir. While many were looking forward for a brief escape, others were not so supportive. One told Helen, “It’s absurd to waste precious energy singing. The singers should be using their energy for just staying alive!” Helen quipped, “But the singers say they generate energy by singing.” Once at the concert, one could feel the excitement in the air and that only intensified when 30 women appeared and faced the audience. Then they began to sing: “I felt a shiver go down my back. I though I had never herd anything so beautiful before” Helen later recalled. But then Helen heard the voice of an angry guard and she saw his bayonet and his rifle. To her surprise the music continued and his angry voice did not. It was as if he was mesmerized by the enchanting sounds. Later, during intermission one of the women offered him a cookie and he humbly accepted it with thanks. Since the first concert was such a success many followed after. The music brought back a feeling of humanity in both the internees and guards. Overtime more officers attended and in a way it brought everyone together. An Australian member of the orchestra said, “When I sang that vocal orchestra music, I forgot I was in the camp. I felt free.”
On August 24, 1945 a camp commander told the prisoners that the war was over, but not who won. The following day they began to receive items previously thought to be scarce: medicine, food, blankets, mosquito nets, bandages, towels. Numerous prisoners continued to die, but the ones who still were holding on knew help was on the way. September 7, 1945 is a day Helen and her sisters will forever remember because that day Dutch paratroopers entered the camp. By this time Helen was so weak she couldn’t walk very far. She finally believed that the Allies were coming to rescue them when she saw red, white, and blue flags instead of the Japanese rising sun flag. The Colijn family moved to the United States and rarely discussed their imprisonment, but in 1980 Antoinette rediscovered her 68 page vocal orchestra scores. This brought international attention to the orchestra and to the surviving members. The Colijn sisters wrote books and participated in documentaries. Alette, Antoinette, and Helen will always be remembered for how they used music to bring people together.
Atwood, Kathryn J. Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue. Chicago, IL: Chicago Review, 2013. Print.
Chen, C. Peter. "Dutch East Indies in World War II." WW2DB. World War II Database, n.d. Web.
Read more from this author